When is a Dictator not a Dictator?

Brian Whitaker extracts the most important part of Peter Harlings ICG report for our edification in his “When is a dictator not a dictator,” Guardian article copied below. This is the Syria I know. All Syria watchers scratch their heads, wondering why the president does this or that and, more importantly, why he doesn’t do X or Y. It often seems such a confused mess, but their is an explanation, which Harling captures well and Whitaker summarizes for us. Because Syria has no political parties, various factions are allowed to struggle and compete over policy formulation. The problem is that Syria has a “policy” in only the very broadest terms.  Powerful individuals are able to undermine and sabotage the initiatives of their competitors at every turn. The president only interviens infrequently and very rarely not decisively, allowing the losing personality to plot a return and stay in the game. Of course much of this depends on the personal style of the President, but it is a system of sorts. It was established by Hafiz al-Assad and has been copied and in some senses upgraded by the Bashar, but not substantially altered.

For example in the Foreign Policy community, there are only a handful of people who can come up with an initiative on their own. Remember, there are no think tanks, policy centers or institutional bodies for policy development. Individuals drive the process and launch initiatives, but they must do so with caution. As soon as they push a policy forward the others will take a position, some will try to undermine it so as not to be left out or allow their competitors a success. Rarely does the president intervene. It makes for very slow and grinding policy advances. Often the policies are filled with contradictions and are not justified with or accompanied by position papers that explain how they fit into the larger world view or values of Syria. Everything is very ad hoc and often left incomplete. In the economic sphere, this method of policy development is particularly damaging. Damage control drives the policy process.

When is a dictator not a dictator?

Bashar al-Assad leads an authoritarian regime, but the workings of power in a country such as Syria are surprisingly complex

By Brian Whitaker in the Guardian
Friday 18 December 2009

Decision-making in authoritarian regimes can be a lot more complicated than it looks. The idea that dictators simply dictate is often wide of the mark: they may not care much about public opinion but they do have to juggle with conflicting demands inside their own power base, and sometimes they can’t even be sure their instructions will be implemented.

Syria is one country where the inner workings of the regime can seem baffling. A diplomat in Damascus once told me that although Bashar al-Assad’s position as president seems secure, nobody knows how much power he really has.

A report published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) earlier this week – mainly about Syrian foreign policy – sheds some light on this intriguing puzzle. In Syria, it says:

Many decisions witness a contest between various lines of thought that coexist within the regime, each reflecting a slightly different worldview, diverging private interests or personal rivalries. Some decisions ultimately reflect a balance between diverse institutional power centres; others, a more decisive victory by a particular one … Further confusion arises from the fact that officials occasionally take initiatives or make pronouncements that are inconsistent with the authorised line – in an attempt to influence it; as a means of drawing attention to themselves; in order to express frustration; or, quite simply, out of ignorance.

In theory at least, the president’s decision is final but much of the time he sits back, waiting to see which way the wind will blow. One Syrian official told the ICG:

Overall objectives are set by the president with input from those around him. Then, it’s up to others to suggest how to achieve them. For instance, if the minister of foreign affairs makes an interesting proposal, the president will give him some leeway – but only up to a point, because he still has to contend with other tendencies. Moreover, the leadership tends to maintain multiple, parallel channels on any given issue. But, in the end, the president always remains in a position to arbitrate and distribute roles. The balancing and real decision-making takes place at the top. No one else is even fully in the picture.

Even the most loyal official, familiar with the workings of the system, can find this confusing. But then there are others who think they know what the policy is – and try to subvert it. In an opaque, compartmentalised and heavily bureaucratised system such as Syria’s it’s by no means certain that decisions, once made, will stick. “Follow-through often is lacking, as the process creates considerable room for either active or passive obstructionism,” the ICG says. “Policies frequently are adjusted or rectified, even after apparently final decisions are made.”

One recent example was Syria’s association agreement with the EU, which both parties spent years negotiating. Then, just as it was about to be signed, Syria unexpectedly put it on hold – possibly because of objections from local business interests.

This chopping and changing happens at a national level too. A Damascus lawyer told the ICG: “There are several centres of power. Much-needed legislation can be enacted and then, within a few months, is amended and amended again. The reason is that the legislation interferes with the interests of people influential enough to step in and have their way”.

Clearly, Syria is not a one-man dictatorship and a senior official quoted in the report sees this as a positive development, a “sign of a dynamic debate”. Dynamic it may be, but it’s still a closed debate, conducted mainly in private, by those in the loop. The rest of the country is excluded.

On the domestic front, this opacity is likely to slow down the pace of reforms or limit their extent. In order to succeed, such reforms will need buy-in from the public as well as the regime’s insiders and the only way to achieve that is through open debate that helps ordinary Syrians to understand the rationale behind them.

Internationally, the opacity makes Syria one of the most difficult countries for negotiators to deal with. Martin Indyk, an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, told a congressional committee last year:

Just about every leader that has attempted to deal with President Bashar al-Assad has come away frustrated. The list includes Colin Powell, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The cause of their frustration is the disconnect between Assad’s reasonableness in personal meetings and his regime’s inability or unwillingness to follow through on understandings reached there. It is unclear whether this is because of a lack of will or a lack of ability to control the levers of power.

This was echoed by a foreign official who has worked closely with the regime and is quoted in the ICG report as saying:

In dealing with Syria we always need to ask ourselves, ‘Are they reluctant to do this or simply can’t they do it?’ … We should not take any promise as a given, if only because many are beyond their capacity. This is a systemic problem. Syria is an authoritarian system of a particular kind, in which the ruler isn’t necessarily obeyed. Besides, the system is largely inefficient. People step on each other’s toes; institutions lack capacity; and things are disorganised.

And even when the president speaks, it’s difficult to know whether he’s telling people what he really thinks or what he thinks they want to hear. A Turkish official interviewed by the ICG said: “Bashar has two lines of speech, one for the region and one for the west. He doesn’t say the same thing on BBC and al-Jazeera. It’s double-talk. Here [in the Middle East] it is acceptable. His interlocutors must understand this is not unusual in the region. Americans might think it devious. He sees it as being polite”.

Comments (12)

jad said:

Dr. Landis, Norman,
Thank you both for pointing out this important piece, it’s all true, this is why we always get confused and frustrated by Syria decisions.
It actually explains to me why we always see our International policies works better than the domestic one because ‘fewer’ people take decision there without a lot of ‘personal’ interfering as we see in the domestic issues.

I always thought that we need some kind of independent body of elected citizens just to follow on every decision made regardless how small it is by any ministry, governmental administration or court of law, to be sure about the final result without any intervene by anybody and this body should have the power needed to do its job and this body should be closely monitored so it doesn’t fall under the usual corruption.
I don’t mean following political issues only I mean every local incident in every city, town and village that get news coverage should be under this body responsibility to see the whole process and each case won’t be closed until every little decision made put into action and made the public aware about that.
This body can do this important job as long as possible until we have a clear line in the public and government heads that once a verdict is taken nothing and nobody can interfere to change it according to his own benefits.

Here is one example of many I am aware about through the local media, explains the issue and how much harm this kind of ‘no clear policy’ is getting in our development process:

Damascus municipality under some ‘businessmen’ command decided to get rid of an important heritage part of Damascus to build a ‘Highway’ that we all know from experience how much harm this projects can do to the area it goes through from urban design point of view and we have many examples of this tragedy allover the world yet the city decided to go with it, until a brilliant Syrian journalist called Waed Mouhanna made a public case about that and under some pressure the same government ‘under the patronage of PM Outri’ had a conference about the issue and gave many recommendation of NOT TO DO IT, the case sleeps for couple years and under the same government the issue is brought up again to the surface and the city thinks again to go with such disastrous project, how convenient?

“دمشق في خطر! محاولات جديدة لتمرير المشاريع التي أوقفت.. فمن يقرر مستقبل دمشق؟”

Old Damascus Heritage (in the buffer zone defined by UNESCO):
King Faisal Street

“Damascus 2020: The Vision for Urban Development and Transportation”
Case Study: King Faisal Street

December 18th, 2009, 5:56 pm


Off The Wall said:

I think the last two days of posts have been very illuminating as to the inner working of Syrian “policy”. I liked Peter’s tone, he seemed serious, very well informed, and with a great deal of neutrality uncommon to most of the one-sided Think-tanks dealing with Middle Eastern Policies. There are issues that are seen from a western prism, but there is nothing wrong with that.

Dear Jad
A deliberative body that addresses every single incident will be most ineffective. I think there should be a hierarchy and I tend to side with our dear Norman is his assertion that all politics are local. The more local the actual participatory governance, the less problems such as those you described the country faces.

That said, power, especially money, work even with more influence at a local level, even here in the US.

December 18th, 2009, 9:04 pm


jad said:

Dearest OTW
My idea wasn’t for that body to deal with anything, their job is just to follow up any case from day one and track it where it goes and what happen to it, and those bodies can be created locally.
Some few quick examples came to mind:
What happened with the status law we rant about? in what drawer is it right now? NOBODY KNOWS! What happened with the guy who ‘knows someone’, who is using sewerage water for planting? Where that case did goes? NOBODY KNOWS! What happened to those who burn and destroy our tree and forests? Where did they disappear? NOBODY KNOWS! What happened to 300.000 local drought refugees who left their villages and moved somewhere else? Any solution on the ground did take place to revive their communities? NOBODY KNOWS!….and the answer is always the same (NOBODY KNOWS.)
Those are the cases I meant by small where you have the news without someone going after it, then suddenly it is taken out of discussion and everybody stop asking about and someone somewhere will make it disappear.

Another very small example of how effective following up a mistake can make people think twice before doing it:
If we parked our car in a no parking zone for more than 10min, they will tow the car, right?
Most of us know that the car will be towed after 10min and we have to pay for it everytime and everywhere we do the same mistake.
In my humble opinion what makes public think twice before doing any mistake is actually the follow up process which will not let them get away with the wrong doing every time they do it.

December 18th, 2009, 9:32 pm


jad said:

Happy Hijri’s New Year 1431 to all Syrians.

December 19th, 2009, 3:45 am


Yossi said:

Kul sana wa-intum tayebin everybody

December 19th, 2009, 5:34 am


jad said:

Thank you Yossi,
Happy belated Chanukka to you too.

December 19th, 2009, 5:45 am


why-discuss said:

When one looks at the US foreign policies , it does seem as chaotic and whimsical that the syrian internal policies. While in Syria the influencial actors are individuals or families, in the US, lobbies and media influences heavily the supposed democratical congress and senate. I don’t see much differences in results at least for foreign policies of the US. It looks adhoc, with sudden shifts and slow returns. the Iraq war is an example of individuals manipulating a whole group of educated people and a country in a disastrous adventure. Was Bush a dictator in disguise?
Money and special interests play as much as in Syria. In the US media has an overwhelming stronger role , often detrimental like the NY times serious rumors of the Iraq nuclear weapons. Overall the normal citizen is consulted but after having been brainwashed, so what is the difference with a flexible dictator ruling a country?

December 19th, 2009, 9:39 am


Amir in Tel Aviv said:

The difference, Why-Discuss, is that Bush is a history, while the
dictators are still in power.
I agree with you that the democratic system isn’t perfect.
Churchill once said, that Democracy is the least worst system.

December 19th, 2009, 11:57 am


Shami said:

Many Thanks bro Jad ,happy new year for you, your family and friends.
Happy new year for all Syria comment users.
Inshallah 2010 ,will be year of peace and understanding among people of same country and nations,in Syria and around.

December 19th, 2009, 10:11 pm


norman said:

Looking at what is going on in the US senate , it seems clear that these senators had courses in Syria , Syria’s Democracy looks similar to the US Senate ,

December 20th, 2009, 2:20 am


Gullgamish said:

It is very, very, amusing what I read about Syria, her Regime, and the Syrians in this blog. It is like watching a ferry tail play with all the ups and downs of a drama.

I wonder, at times, however, did I live the first 3 decades of my life in the place being described here? Or was I the one living in a ferry-tail land?

Syria Fantasy!

December 20th, 2009, 11:27 am


Akbar Palace said:

I wonder, at times, however, did I live the first 3 decades of my life in the place being described here?


What exactly is being “described here” that you disagree with?

December 21st, 2009, 1:07 am


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